30 Fish and Chips

30 FishOne of the best fish and chips shops in Ireland, Presto (established 1970) on South Lotts Road, is only steps from our apartment here in Dublin. And it’s not just me saying “best.” The Daily Edge (June 8, 2014) put it among the nineteen best places in the country (there are hundreds), and it’s usually included in top ten lists for Dublin and sometimes for all Ireland.

We first heard about Presto from a taxi driver—Dublin taxi drivers are a great resource—though we probably would have tried it soon anyway. On the warm summer nights of our first few weeks in the city, the aroma of frying wafting out onto the street was too much to withstand. There are always customers lined up in the shop, and we often see cars illegally parked on the curb out front while the drivers dash in to pick up a phoned-in order—better recommendations than even a good Tripadvisor review. After one visit we were hooked. There’s another fish and chips shop a few hundred feet around the corner, but I know I’ll never try it. Why mess with perfection?

Though haddock, hake, and plaice all have their devotees, for my money cod is the only way to go with fish and chips. Cod is more likely to be fresh than some of the others, too. There are various theories on what kind of oil should be used for the deep frying, but all agree that the fresh fish should be battered right before frying—absolutely no “pre-frying.” When I went to Presto to take photos, the staff made sure I witnessed each step of this process. The tenderness of the cooked fish and the crispy crust of the fried batter make the perfect mouthful.30 Chips

The chips must of course be thick cut from actual potatoes, not reconstituted mush as we often see in the US, and skin on or skin off as preferred. In Ireland the term “french fries” usually means thin, crispy potato pieces while “chips”—a word that goes back to Charles Dickens and beyond—is reserved for the thicker, softer, more substantial cut. Some restaurants serve both, but “fish and chips” always means the fat, succulent potato strips.

As for accompaniments, I understand the appeal of malt vinegar, but I think tartar sauce–with its combination of creaminess and the zing of pickles–best contrasts the fried taste and crispiness. If you’ve ever tried deep fried pickles, you know what I mean, as did Elvis: pickles and fried batter make the perfect flavor and texture duo. Ron started out our marriage insisting on vinegar on his fish and chips, but over the years he has quietly fallen under the spell of tartar sauce. I make my own with mayonnaise, sweet and dill pickles chopped fine, plenty of garlic, a few capers and some chives if I have them on hand, and a dash of fresh lemon juice. Tartar sauce goes well on the chips, too. I learned to love takeaway chips in Belgium in the sixties, where they were sold steaming hot from booths on the street in paper cones with large dollops of mayonnaise—a great antidote to the perpetual rain.

In Ireland and the UK a common sidekick for fish and chips is “mushy peas,” or dried marrowfat peas soaked overnight in water and baking soda and cooked with a little sugar until they are, well, mushy. In color, taste, and texture, mushy peas offer a nice counterpoint to the fried goodness.

30 Fish and ChipsWith palpable resentment, Belgium claims that “French” fries are their invention, and other countries and cultures across Europe and even India also claim to have invented fish and chips. One theory is that sixteenth-century Jews in Spain and Portugal spread the practice around Europe as they moved from place to place. The popularity of the dish in this part of the world—Britain, Scotland and Ireland—grew substantially in the nineteenth century because of a thriving fishing industry around the islands and a hungry working class who grasped that fish and chips was easily available, cheap, and delicious. Of course today, some of the more upscale restaurants also serve fish and chips, but everybody knows that the best examples come from the local “chipper.”

What I didn’t know until giving my loyalty to Presto was that fish and chips in Ireland has a distinctly Italian personality. In the 1880s an Italian immigrant, Giuseppe Cervi, apparently got off an America-bound ship by mistake in Queenstown (now Cobh) on the southern Irish coast, thinking he’d arrived in the new world. First selling from a cart, he set up Ireland’s first chipper in Pearse Street (then Great Brunswick Street) very close to where the young Patrick Pearse—the subject of my last blog post, “29 The Terrible Beauty of Patrick Pearse”—was living at the time. I fervently hope that Pearse was a regular customer and had at least one good hearty meal of fish and chips in the days before he went off to die for his country.

Other Italians followed Giuseppe’s lead. Today there are about 257 Italian-Irish fish and chips shops in Ireland, according to ITICA, the Italian Traditional Irish Chippers Association, on its 30 ITICA clockfascinating home page that plays the sound of deep fat frying when you open it. Presto is an ITICA member, and the owner and staff—like most members of the organization—hail from the same part of Italy, Val Di Comino between Rome and Naples. I must confess that I think the staff at Presto put a little more effort into our orders because they know Ron is of Italian descent.

We do our part to keep them in business. All of our guests have loved the fish and chips from Presto, and some have told future guests to make sure they get a meal from the chipper. By now we know how to negotiate the lines that often form at the counter. The 50,000 seat Aviva Stadium is just a few hundred yards away, so when there’s a soccer or rugby match, Presto is mobbed. Last summer’s World Cup games brought them a lot of customers, too, since most of the local bars don’t sell food, and after a few hours of beer and football, nothing tastes better than a hot pile of fish and chips.

We love being able to grab a delicious dinner any night of the week from 5 to 11 p.m. and bring it home still piping hot—the heat-saving bags are a huge improvement on newspaper, though not nearly so picturesque. Every neighborhood and even the smallest of villages in Ireland seems to have its chipper—something I am going to miss terribly when I go back home.


30 Staff


  1. Tom Cunningham

    Best. Post. Ever.

  2. Angela WE

    Indeed, a revelation, and a far cry from what I remember from London.

  3. Martha Wallace

    I am ravenous for fish and chips, and your homemade tartar sauce. Great article.

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